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Ferry or Fly? Travelling Helsinki to Stockholm by Boat

Me outside the Silja Tallink ferry with sled ready for North Sweden.

When planning my route from city to city, checking for flights is my last resort. First I check for trains, buses, share cars and ferries. I assumed that all these forms of transport would surely be better than flying. I recently discovered this may not always be the case.

Recently Daisy (my sister), Corey (my boyfriend) and I took the luxuriously beautiful overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, booked via Silja Tallink. The word ‘ferry’ is a colossal understatement; this boat had everything for a round-the-world trip condensed into twelve levels and almost 1000 cabins.

Her 2852 passengers sleep in the 986 cabins, which range from ‘luxury suite’ to our homely C-cabin. Passengers can drink at any of the six bars, eat in any of the seven restaurants and relax in the two saunas and four jacuzzis, all on board.

When we stepped onto the ferry we were immediately greeted by a live band and a smiling attendant leading the way with an open hand. We stumbled down the glamorous entry mall with our backpacks and food bags. I was so in awe at the glamour and enormity of it all; this was not the conventional Sydney Ferry I was used to. Two huge chandeliers hung from the roof and the bannisters were chrome-plated gold. There was a glass elevator in each corner drifting effortlessly upwards.

Whilst gliding along in our cabin, Daisy and I began to wonder just how much better is it to catch a ferry rather than flying, if it’s any better at all?

“Sometimes our instincts about what’s best for the environment are wrong and this shows the importance of calculating the actual carbon emissions from different activities and making our decisions – both as individuals and government policy – based on the real numbers. “

Climate Care, carbon offsetting company from The Guardian.

Unfortunately this wasn’t such an easy topic to research – my favourite carbon footprint websites still don’t have the capacity to measure CO2 output for ferry journeys so I have little resources to consult. There are also so many variables to consider that CO2 calculators may not take into account, for example is the plane full? Is the ferry only half full? All of these can influence to total sustainability of the journey.

There are a number of ways we can judge the sustainability of a form of transport: CO2 emissions, energy resource consumption, particulate matter (in terms of human toxicity), nitrogen oxides (affecting acidification, nitrification, and smog) and non-methane hydrocarbons (affecting smog and ozone). 

Example of calculator comparison for journey from London to Amsterdam taken from In each category the flight is the greatest polluter.

Aside from the environmental affects there are also affects on social sustainability; for example if you take an all-inclusive cruise ship through the Caribbean, you probably wont spend extra money at local venues when you have your on-board meal waiting for you. This can negatively affect local communities as ship-loads of tourists are coming in but nobody’s buying anything. On the other hand large numbers of tourists flooding out of an airport and descending on a town will not necessarily have a good outcome, either.

Ferries, in particular are notoriously bad at disposing of on-board waste. The Guardian recently asked travel industry experts if travelling on cruise ships can be considered an environmentally friendly way to travel. Overall the answer was the same: travelling by cruise-ship is not as ‘green’ as we’d hope. Justin Francis from Responsible Travel said “On a typical one-week voyage a cruise ship generates more than 50 tonnes of garbage and a million tonnes of grey (waste) water, 210,000 gallons of sewage and 35,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water. Some of this is pumped into ocean and some treated.” It seems cruise ships need to channel their efforts into effective waste-management, waste reduction and CO2 emission reduction before they can be considered an environmentally form of travel.

However, not all boats are cruise-ships; there are ferries, cargo ships, catamarans, etc. A friend recently sent me an article about one man’s 2-week journey as a passenger on a cargo ship travelling from Germany to Canada. Will Verbert realised that all his efforts to reduce carbon at home would quickly be rendered insignificant by catching just one flight:

Picture taken from Will Verbert’s article in The Guardian.

“I realised that all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint at home in Milan – I cycle to work, limit food waste and seldom buy new clothes – are wiped out by just one flight between Canada and Europe.”

Will Verbert, The Guardian

By choosing to take the cargo ship Hamburg-Halifax, Will ’emitted’ 5.3 kg of carbon. If he had chosen to fly, this number would have increased almost 250-fold. At the moment travelling by cargo ship is extremely expensive (Will’s trip cost just under 100€/day) but hopefully in the future it will become more accessible.

The 3 of us on deck arriving in Stockholm.

So, once again we’re left with the question: was our decision to sail from Helsinki to Stockholm a more ‘greener’ choice than flying? Does anyone know anymore information about ferries, particularly in comparison to planes?

For now, we can only try our best with the information we have. I loved the ferry experience from Helsinki to Stockholm. Watching stage shows, drinking cocktails at the bar and swaying with ocean waves on the dancefloor was an experience I’ll never forget, and certainly an experience that couldn’t be replaced by any flight.

Planning a journey? Here are my favourite online CO2 calculators:

  • EcoPassenger:
    • Advantages: compares journeys by bus, plane and car. Compares not only CO2 emissions but also energy resource consumption, particulate matter (in terms of human toxicity), nitrogen oxides (affecting acidification, nitrification, and smog) and non-methane hydrocarbons (affecting smog and ozone). 
    • disadvantages: it uses only existing transport routes, so if it cant find your specific journey it wont calculate it. E.g. it could not find a route for my bus journey from Warsaw –> Tallinn or my ferry journey Helsinki –> Stockholm.
  • Carbon footprint calculator can check carbon footprint from plane, car, bus and train.
  • myclimate tells you the CO2 emissions but only for flights.
  • Be wary that all calculators make assumptions and journeys can be subject to a number of variables that calculators cant account for.


Published by busybeebella

An energetic and enthusiastic young writing passionate about scientific communication.

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